Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” If ever a writer lived who captured a story’s mood in every line, it was Edgar. He twisted the reader’s emotions into a perfect knot, and just when you thought he’d give your heart reprieve, he buried it under the floor.
As a ninth-grader, I remember my first experience with Edgar. I stood at my seat in freshman English class reading aloud the lines of Annabel Lee. A darkness resided within each word and syllable, a mood of foreboding and dreariness. Poe established mood like clouds establish rain, picking up steam drop by drop until the sharp tingle falls in torrents.
In short fiction, each and every sentence holds a key to the door of your reader’s mood.
Eerie Mood Tip # 1:
Characterization. Make your characters creepy, haunting, or otherwise insane, and your story’s mood will follow suit.
When considering mood through characterization, think of The Addams Family. In the television show, the offbeat family is oblivious to how different they are from the normal world. In fact, they have a hand in a box for a pet. They’re the epitome of irregularity, a grand recipe for eerie fiction.
The Addams Family lends itself to a sort of dark humor. The daughter cuts the heads from dolls; the uncle electrocutes himself for sport; the butler moans and stomps about the home with sallow skin and an expressionless visage. The cast is an ensemble of eerie misfits, a crew of frightening players.
Use deranged characters like these in your narrative to fuel your reader’s sleepless night.
Eerie Mood Tip # 2:
Setting. Bring your setting to life, and unsettle your reader’s mood.
In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a dark mansion resides within an ominous tapestry of broken nature. The opening paragraph paints an ugly collage of decaying foliage, ghastly tree-stems, and vacant eye-like windows, the setting itself living and breathing, just another character in Edgar’s eerie tale of lineage and the grave.
Let your character’s surroundings reflect uncertainties and apprehensions. When a character fears the dark, let the dark become a personified extension of that fear, the trees reaching out with clawing hands, the moon staring as a sickening eye. Let every piece of the land, air, and sea become the character’s inner-turmoil, a mirror of his worsening situation.
Make the room itself cry before the character sheds a single tear.
Eerie Mood Tip # 3:
Plot. Make awful things happen from nowhere.
Characters should never be at ease, and events should occur in an unanticipated manner. When the character opens a door, let the reader believe its entry spells certain doom or nothing at all. Suspense and foreshadowing are the tools of an eerie plot, a mystery that floods the reader in a dark sea with questions like, “What will happen, and to whom?”
The writer should make unexpected events occur, all the while planting clues and distractions to open a multitude of possibilities for the reader. This see-saw of dark wonder takes the reader up, an adrenaline rush of narrow escape, and down, a thumping heart that pounds and throbs in anticipation. Give your reader thrills and chills with intermittent downtime, just to start anew on the following page.
Leave both the character and the reader alone in the dark to see how it all turns out.
Eerie Mood Tip # 4:
Diction (Word Choice). Choose your words carefully, each one adding to the feeling of dread.
Writing the perfect sentence requires thought and intentionality. Each word, each syllable, each letter should render a collective effect, one that embodies the desired mood. Never let your characters “yell with force” when they can “scream bloody murder.” Write with purpose, and allow each sentence to advance the eerie mood.
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
When creating an eerie mood, use puns and double meanings to keep your reader anxious and guessing. In The Cask of Amontillado, Montressor hands Fortunato a “Flagon of de Grave,” a wine whose translation means “The Grave.” In the next scene, Fortunato buries Montressor in the wall behind his family catacombs.
Assemble words with such eerie specificity that the reader is unnerved and terrified by the end of every line.
The Final Nail.
Like Edgar Allan Poe, capture your reader’s heart with an eerie mood, and just when the eye opens widest, flip him screaming from the bed. Readers love that sort of thing.